The honoring of our past relatives is extremely important. Without diving into an extremely long blog entry on why it's important, just follow me down this thought path. Wouldn't you rather your descendants remember and honor you, instead of completely forgetting you? If you aren't going to leave a significant mark on this world through an invention or some major discovery, don't you at least want the mark you leave (your progeny) to recognize your contribution to their existence? And if the previous is true for you, why wouldn't you want to provide the same recognition to those who were responsible for your existence so that they are not forgotten? You exist because of them. To me, that alone makes them worthy of honor.
I'm not going to get into what you should do in ritual practice to honor your ancestors. Some great insights can be found in a book that I love because it is completely on target and appropriately written. It is also briefer than most books, as ancestor veneration is more about action and feeling than about research and "doing things right." If you can get it, read through Weaving Memory: A Guide to Honoring the Ancestors by Laura Patsouris.
You may think it a gripe of semantics, but I should note that what I am exploring here is not called "ancestor worship." The word worship is tossed around a great deal, particularly in relation to this topic and by those who understand it very little. One can show honor to a deity that one worships - indeed, honor is one expression of worship. But worship is what one does for deities, not for the spirits of the dead. As a result, calling this "ancestor worship" is incorrect and shows misunderstanding. Doing so also incorrectly communicates to those who don't understand (and may be seeking to) exactly what we are doing, allowing them to have a misguided view of what we believe. I am not addressing here whether or not the dead can become deified; that is certainly possible. Rather, I am addressing what it is correctly called when one honors one's ancestors, albeit in a ritualized manner. Also commonly used and acceptable is the word veneration, since veneration is synonymous with reverence.
I should note that making appeals to ancestors for aid is also not worship, though it is an extremely common and valid magical practice. It is a practice seen in Catholic appeals to the Saints, as well as in Hoohoo appeals to the (named or unnamed) dead. One is not worshiping the dead when one makes an appeal to a dead spirit any more than one is worshiping the living when one asks for help from a living person. You can better hold onto the understanding of this concept by remembering that the dead are simply "the formerly living."
Because of the importance and power of names (you can read a bit more about that in this entry), knowing the names of your ancestors is extremely helpful and powerful. Upon first learning the name of a previously unknown ancestor, my mind swirls with speculation of the culture, the time, the whole world in which that person must have lived! Learning names breathes life into your ancestors - like peering through a window in which the past is on the other side. Of course, one can only learn names by doing research. Though you may not be good at research, it is the most effective and powerful non-ritual method of honoring your ancestors. Once you know their names, they are no longer forgotten. What could be a greater gesture of honor than making someone no longer forgotten? To advance my own practices of veneration, I have been researching my own ancestry for many years and I've worked very hard to discover their names.
Does this mean one can't do ancestor veneration unless one knows the names of one's ancestors? Certainly not! It is completely valid to conduct an act of veneration for those who are unnamed. I have personally made appeals to certain unnamed ancestors asking them to reveal themselves in my research, only to have new avenues of records become available that reveals their name!
There are a few practices that are traditionally frowned upon, mostly by the Hoodoo culture, when conducting ancestor veneration. I'm going to review a few and provide my two cents about each.
- Veneration should never be conducted in a room where people sleep. I have no problem with this, unless one lives in a single studio room that includes one's bed, or there are sleeping people everywhere. If the rule would exclude the practice altogether, one needs to evaluate the spirit of the rule. Some have claimed that the dead can disturb the dreams of the living and make sleeping not very restful. But then my logic asks, "if they are your family, and disturbing your dreams would make you not venerate them, why would they do that to you and halt your veneration?"
- Offerings of food are okay, as long as there is no salt or animal flesh provided. Does this mean no ice-cream? My dad loved butter pecan ice-cream. If I was going to make an offering of food, that would be what I'd pick. But is milk an animal flesh? I have to ask why food is even necessary at all. Aren't they no longer living? I would advise not to use any kind of food in your veneration practices. I think the desire to give food to the dead comes from anthropomorphizing what is no longer human. Yes, they are "formerly living" people, but a transformation happens to them when they give up their material body. Once the dead give up their bodies, the desires that are motivated by material life fall away. The salt simply comes from the tradition that salt blocks the movement of energy.
- Images of the dead should not include anyone who is living. I completely agree with this one and here's why. An altar is a ritual focal point. It is where you pump your magical energy. If that energy incorporates an unconscious understanding that the target is dead, yet there are images of the living present, those living people could become the recipient of that energy for the dead. That could be disturbing to the psyche of the living. It could potentially cause problems as your energy for the dead constantly bombards their personal field. Given that computer-based scanners and photo editors are easy use these days, there is no reason why the living can't be excluded from altar photographs. When in doubt, leave it out.
- Ancestors who were abusive or substance-abusers in life should not be venerated in death. The intent behind this rule is to prevent you from granting access to your energy to spirits with potentially hostile intent. Again, I have trouble with this one for the same reason I gave in #2 above; this is an attempt to anthropomorphize the dead. According to the writings of spirtist, Allan Kardec, once spirits give up their material bodies, all of the trials that motivated their actions in life fall away. They become free from those material influences and their motivations change, as do their actions.
Recently, I decided to have my DNA tested for the proportions of genetics contributed by each of my ancestral origins. But if I look at the research I've already done, as well as the extensive research completed by my uncle in this area, I think I can chart a solid expectation of my test results. Let's assume that my family history breaks down into 8 main lines (my 8 great-grandparents). This is what I expect.
1. Line traced to 1741; German (the earliest was a "Hessian" captured by General Washington when he crossed the Delaware)
2. Line traced to 1670; German
3. Line traced to 1915; records for this line are undiscovered; possibly German
4. Line traced to 1590; British and Netherlander
1. Line traced to 1811; German and British
2. Line traced to 1622; Scots Irish and British
3. Line traced to 1291; Swedish, then French, then British
4. Line traced to 1794; German (Franconia/Bavaria) and from where my surname comes.
Nearly all of the mentioned family lines settled in the western Maryland and south-central Pennsylvania areas as early American colonists. They were farmers and a very solid part of the colonial Pennsylvania Germans (the "Dutch"), though not of the Anabaptist groups.
I expect that my test will show a large amount of northern and central European (Germanic) heritage. I may find that most of my family is centered in one small area of Europe; I may find that there are hidden or unknown cultures about which I never knew. I don't expect to see very much from any other cultures on other continents, but it would be a fun surprise to know I had more in the mix, such as, Hispanic, African, American Indian or even a far eastern culture.
Being made up of mixed cultures means I have more complexity to tap when I honor my ancestors. Ancestral veneration practices are only partially built and executed for you. Mostly, they are done for the dead. You give them what you think they want. This means that a past ancestor may respond favorably if one uses practices that are based on one's familiar culture. Like the living, the dead prefer to have familiar things around. when one has many cultures contributing, the arrangement can become wonderfully "patchworked." Consider it like this: if you were a spirit being honored by one of your descendants, wouldn't you like to see some familiar elements from your own culture woven into the effort, instead of veneration that doesn't tip its hat to your culture in the least? As a result, your practices may seem like a cultural hodge-podge. That's entirely alright. What's most important is that you do something - anything - to show them honor and pay them some memory. Your practice can be as simple as lighting a candle, saying a prayer of honor and thanks, then blowing out the candle.Yep, it's that easy!
Ancestor veneration also achieves something wonderful. It gives you a moment of daily meditation. You can use the memory of your ancestors on which to focus, much like a mantra. These moments of meditation slowly transform your mind to be more receptive to intuitive skills. Not only will you grow closer to your familial dead, you will become more receptive to their messages and more adept at spell work in general.
Now for the racial part that is going to make people upset. Just as there are many different cultures produced by racially white people, there are many cultures produced by racially black people and brown people and yellow people and red people. Every tribe, clan, country and region produced its own practices that it held dear. Honoring those, rather than thinking that some are more valid or desirable than others, is what's most important during ancestor veneration. Whether you are the most racially pure person on the planet or a thoroughly blended human being, your ancestor veneration should be free of your racial issues.
This practice also teaches us - the living - that being different from each other is okay and worth celebrating. We can't celebrate diversity until we recognize diversity. We have to be willing to point out how we are different and then be open to sharing it. We have to be willing to say to each other, "I am white; you are black. Let's learn about each other so we can better value each other." Because of racism, I believe that there is too much effort in the world today seeking to wipe away that we are all different by making our world intolerant to the act of cultural celebration. Cultural celebration is not racism, but it can be bigotry if we approach cultures other than our own as if they are inferior.